• Becoming Antinous: Week Two

    By Isaiah Bell

    Thomas Hampson (Hadrian) alongside Isaiah Bell (Antinous) at Hadrian staging rehearsal, photo: Gaetz Photography

    Canadian tenor Isaiah Bell gives us an unprecedented look – recorded in real time – at what it takes to get ready for a world premiere.

    Week Two

    Lighting is everything

    Wednesday, September 12

    Lying in bed before I dive into this second week of rehearsals. Yesterday I went through all my diary entries from the previous week, observing the patterns. I want to set a new goal today that’s based on what I’ve observed:

    I want to open up my awareness to a more inclusive place – to remember that giving and receiving energy and support from the rest of the team is always worth the effort. When I’m feeling vulnerable I have to remind myself not to be swept away by worrying about what other people might want, at the expense of my own well-being — hence last week’s idea of “being on my own team.” Not that there are any unpleasant demands being made on me in this project — there truly aren’t — but especially in the first phases of something I’m prone to being over-obliging. Going forward, I want to stay rooted in that strong sense of self, while also making sure to include friends and colleagues in my bubble.

    1:42 p.m.

    I’m exhausted. It feels like I might be fighting something off. It’s that bleak and black kind of exhaustion. Like nothing will be good again. Not super acute, but that’s its profile. I don’t know how to proceed.

    I want to set my sights on bigger things. I want to expand out. How?

    2:11 p.m.

    Sometimes when I’m tired I have trouble engaging with anything light or effervescent or beautiful. I just walked into a practice room and the light coming in the window was so beautiful. It transformed this very functional, dreary space into something bigger than itself. I hope to turn my attention more toward these kinds of possibilities today.

    Growing up in Fort St. John, BC, my mother always reminded me that Ben Heppner comes from next-door Dawson Creek. When BH showed up for rehearsal this week I had to take a selfie for her. Photobomb by G. Dahl.

    7:34 p.m.

    Somehow today’s dance rehearsal helped me get some life back. I think of the intention I set for myself this morning.  Having to be super spatially aware in dance rehearsal helped me open up my sphere of energy to my colleagues: I’m walking around without taking my eyes off the sky, as the dancers move closely around me. By the end of rehearsal, I no longer feel that gloomy inwardness that has been dogging me for the past few days. Also: the lift at the end! I get hoisted into the air by these very strong and capable dancers and I was trying to stifle a giggle the whole time... it feels strange and amazing! All I have to do is just hold still while they do all the work... it’s quite the trip... and a cure for the blues?

    Soprano Shannon Mercer and I capture urban sidewalk toilets in situ whenever we see them. The walk home from Tapestry Briefs gave me the motherlode. I call this: Deconstruction II.

    Thursday, September 13

    My prayers have been answered! I got a second day off only one day after my real day off. Not called into rehearsal today. I will make granola, I will do my laundry, I will get ready for my husband’s arrival (red-eye lands tomorrow very early!) and I will not chastise myself for lying in bed in the afternoon. YOLO!!!

    7:59 p.m.

    Night off and I’ve come to the Tapestry Opera showing of micro-operas from the Lib Lab. In the cab on the way here I was questioning my choice to leave the house, since I still feel worn out. But there’s a great energy in this room, it’s exciting to get squeezed into a sold-out show, and part of what I love about being in Toronto is how much is going on all the time, and how strong the opera community is. This sounds like a company line, but it’s something I actually feel!

    1:03 a.m.

    Tomorrow’s another big day. I realize from last week’s diary that many days on this contract have felt like big days, and I guess it will keep on feeling like that. It’s a big deal for me. I’m so excited about it all, but right now I just feel tired. My husband is coming in on the redeye from Victoria in a few hours. It looks like I’ll be working all day, every day he’s here, which I’m honestly pretty bummed out about. Being apart so often is one of the hardest things about this life. But we didn’t know when my days off would be when we booked the flights for this contract.

    I know with my brain that emotions and energy levels affect our mental outlook, but for the last few days I’ve been feeling more exhausted than usual and with that comes a somewhat less-rosy-than-normal perception of the future. The meditating helps me feel more in control, and I took a real long walk all the way across the city after seeing a show at Tapestry Opera tonight, which also helped. But it’s that moment at bed time when the brain has to let go of the day that’s difficult. Tomorrow I will set goals for tomorrow. Tonight I’m too tired to focus on it.

    Assistant Director Russell Wustenberg tries out my favourite mood-stabilizing move

    Friday, September 14

    4:30 p.m.

    Media preview today, and I’m super self-conscious for some reason, super aware of how I might be appearing. In addition to awareness of the cameras, I’m aware of the awkwardness of my clumpy sandals, and the raked stage, and of fussing with my new rehearsal toga. It’s pulling me out of myself. My singing felt good when I warmed up, and then suddenly I felt cut off when I came into rehearsal. I have 10 minutes of break now, and I want to establish a new goal.

    I want to embrace the awkwardness today. I want the character to be an awkward boy. I want to embrace my own inner-coltishness. Antinous can be clumsy. He isn’t socially graceful. I think maybe he knows he’s awkward, and somehow it doesn’t matter — there’s something more important at stake. That could be something to hang on to, and it could also create a contrast between the second act, when he’s a youth, to the third act, when he’s a man.

    Thomas Hampson (Hadrian) alongside Isaiah Bell at Hadrian staging rehearsal. Gaetz Photography

    7:13 p.m.

    So much excess energy right now! So many intentions and things I want to try out. But I won’t be needed in rehearsal for at least an hour, probably two. My tendency is to want to try to sing and sing and sing until I feel I’ve recovered myself after feeling tentative this afternoon. But instead I am going to try to take this energy in a slightly different direction. The same coach in Austria this summer who was encouraging me to relish the in-between moments (Jeff Francis) was talking about how you can “teach your character” a behaviour or movement that helps your singing. In this case, however, I want my character to teach me. I had a really great chat with Daniel and Peter (librettist and director) after rehearsal this afternoon. One of the many helpful ideas I took from it was a confirmation and expansion of the idea of Antinous as preternaturally self-possessed. What can I learn from someone who has that ego-free self-confidence? How can I inhabit that?

    For one thing, I think my residual energy right now is buzzing for the purpose of “proving myself” again. I would like to repurpose it into that quiet strength I was talking about last weekend. Stillness in motion. Active presence. But how?

    First: what if Antinous was in this situation? Having to wait and keep warm for an eventual exertion?

    How would he manage his time? One thing for sure, he wouldn’t be pumping himself full of adrenaline every minute he thought about what he had to do. He also wouldn’t be drilling the action over and over, wasting energy just to prove it’s possible.

    What would he do? He might pour his energy into something focused, efficient, and meditative – like walking. I’ve done that before to positive effect. That’s what I’m going to try now. Even writing like this I have calmed down a bit. I’m going to do 10 minutes of gentle vocal exercises, and then I’m going to go walk. Let’s see…

    Saturday, September 15

    3:36 p.m.

    Singing, like life, involves a balance of releasing and engaging. A balance of caring and letting go. A balance of listening and speaking. Malleability and strength.

    Today we are staging one of my big scenes. Right now I feel I am skewing toward the inward, and I need to find a way to feel confident about expression, about trusting my strength. Pushing it out doesn’t work. Cajoling doesn’t work. Faking it doesn’t work. It has to come from a true place. I know my sensitivity is supposed to be my power, but this does not feel like power. Something is stopped up. Something is held back.

    WWAD [What Would Antinous Do?]

    Antinous is feeling helpless at this point in the story. He’s feeling out of control. He feels the pressure of other people’s judgement and antipathy. Why does he choose to open up to the people who might be judging him, or resenting him?

    Connecting with The Id, on break. Photo by Russell W.

    Sunday, September 16

    1:08 p.m.

    How are we today? Last night was tough. I do feel pressure on this job. I didn’t realize how much I felt it at this particular moment. I thought I was in touch with myself more than, perhaps, I am.

    Today I’m looking at how I feel about other people’s opinions. Part of this, I realize right now, is confronting the fact that more colleagues and friends are going to see this show than anything else I’ve done. Often my highest-pressure jobs are in foreign cities where I don’t have a lot of personal connections, so while I may know a few people in the audience, it’s mostly just that amorphous, mercurial blob, “The Audience.”

    Suddenly, here, I’m contending with masses of Real Life Individuals... and that pulls Isaiah the Person into the mix. Obliging, friendly, self-deprecating, polite, jokey Isaiah. On stage, I want to leave behind this persona for a moment, and instead to step into Isaiah the Performer, the stage animal, the id, the emotional being. Confusing when their territories cross…

    I’m glad I’m looking at this now. I know I have to start bringing a little more of that id energy into my daily self, in rehearsal, and in life. It’s going to be a project… and I love a project!

    9:05 p.m.

    Unexpected night off! Movie (Sorry to Bother You) and dinner (Quetzal) with beloved husband. Feels like a holiday! Both the movie and the dinner were so unique and creative and joyful that they’ve left me feeling hopeful and inspired again. And I’m just so happy Rene is here, and that I get to spend time with him and be married to him. Smiley-Face-With-Hearts-For-Eyes emoji!!

    Isaiah Bell: Tenor, Composer, Practice Room Photographer

    Monday, September 17


    I had a funny thought, which came immediately after I thought that I should try to remember that we never “arrive”, we never totally have things sorted out: “If only I could get my brain around this idea, and learn how to live like that all the time, I would be set for life!”

    8:09 p.m.

    Huge focus tonight on trying not to be pulled out of myself by the presence of other people. That has been a theme this week. It’s so easy to slide into seeing yourself as other people might be seeing you. Most of the time I don’t even notice I’m doing it. Then I suddenly realize more of my brain is being used to judge and react to other people’s perceived opinions than to do what I’m doing. It’s a continual conscious effort for me to return to focusing on my breath and what I’m actually experiencing at any given moment.

    11:40 p.m.

    The last few days have been challenging. I always find that when we move from music rehearsal to staging that the singing suffers a bit for a while as the focus switches to character and blocking and logistics. And it always dings my confidence, even though I know it shouldn’t. It’s been particularly tough this week. I feel vulnerable being imperfect in front of people. I have an idea of myself as a decently put-together and easygoing person, but opera isn’t really about being put-together and easygoing. Sometimes in rehearsal I catch myself caring more about trying to make it seem easy and natural than about figuring things out. It’s a real weakness. When I give myself permission to make mistakes and to be awkward and NOT to know what’s going on, things move ahead. We all know in theory that that’s what rehearsal is for, but I just have to keep reminding myself.

    WWAD? In one scene we were staging today, I’m being approached by a wild fortune teller who is making a prophecy about my fate. My instinct was to back away, but Peter had me move forward, fascinated. When I’m confronted by Hadrian’s perpetually angry, macho general at the beginning, I personally would defer to his aggressive demeanour, but Antinous stands his ground. It’s interesting to live someone else’s life, especially someone who is so similar to me in many ways.

    Tuesday, September 18

    1:47 p.m.

    Staging some big Act III scenes today. Act III is my act! I feel like I’m reconnecting with myself today in a big way as I prep for rehearsal. But I don’t want to do that thing where I go, “Great, you fixed it, now it’s smooth sailing!” and then I slowly start getting worse again. I must keep my attention on what’s happening right now. Good or bad or medium. Peter was talking yesterday about how the stoics believed that the moment with the most capacity for fulfilment was the present moment. (Trajan apparently, Hadrian’s predecessor (played by Roger Honeywell in our show), was a stoic. His sympathy for Hadrian and Antinous’ love plays in opposition to the empress Plotina’s relentlessness.) It’s not directly related to my character, but it’s cool to hear ideas I’ve been batting around showing up elsewhere in my environment.

    The Cult of Antinous is alive in Toronto

    Wednesday, September 19


    Well, this is a crazy new warm-up. Today, instead of starting with exercises, which no matter their usefulness can always veer into rote territory, I am trying to begin by just saying or intoning whatever words/notes/sounds seem to resonate inside me. For instance, checking in with myself by singing/intoning “How are you today?” on an improvised melody (or no melody at all), as I try to figure out how my body and voice are interacting with the idea of sound today. It’s so different from the feeling of imposing onto my larynx a set of exercises, with their attendant expectations, before I ever make a natural sound. I am resolved to value internal integrity over product…

    7:41 p.m.

    A big realization in my adult life as a performer has been how little it matters to appear cool and collected. I spent a long time in my youth trying to keep unwieldy emotions under wraps. Opera happens at Level 10 most of the time. That’s why it sounds like it does. As singers, we often instinctively counter that by being extra chill in rehearsal, stepping out of that ratcheted-up tension to be “regular” when we’re not actually singing. Sometimes, however, this M.O. isn’t helpful for me, physically.

    I want to experiment this next week with showing my ugly face, showing my process, showing my inner-opera singer. I love being the clever, shiny singer who pretends he isn’t singing, who sings “incidentally.” This is why staging is so tricky, because I go from letting my body do what it needs to do to sing, in music rehearsal and in the practice room, to snapping into total naturalism.

    In rehearsal this week, though, I’m observing some admired colleagues importing their singing gestures in a way that I know they will iron out before opening night, but which obviously helps bridge that gap. I love it! It ties into not caring so much about whether people think you’re fully cooked right from the first rehearsal.


    I was writing the above, about releasing my ugly face, while on a break from rehearsal. I had to stop writing to go back to rehearsal and have another go at the neck-breaking scene, which has a couple of vocal moments ripe for releasing the ugly. It’s wonderful to think, “I’m really going to let go of that need to be physically polished for a moment, just to see what happens.” I immediately felt a stronger connection to my basic singing. It’s not perfect, but it’s something I’m going to stick with... it feels like a brave choice, and not one that comes easy to me, but I‘ve been inspired!

    Becoming Antinous: Read the entire series

    Week One Week Three Week Four Week Five

    Hadrian Watch Party
    with special guests Rufus Wainwright, Daniel MacIvor, and Peter Hinton
    August 10 at 6:30 p.m. ET

    Watch a free stream of the full opera with composer Rufus Wainwright, librettist Daniel MacIvor, and director Peter Hinton, who will participate in a live Q&A after the performance.

    Attendance is free but advance registration required.


    Composer's Notes: Hadrian's Rufus Wainright 

    | We dive inside the mind of Hadrian composer Rufus Wainwright...


    Synopsis and Librettist's Notes


    | Spoiler Alert: This synopsis reveals key plot elements...

    First Listen: The Music of Hadrian | Our subscribers were the first to hear this excerpt live at...

    Dramatically Roman: The Costumes of Hadrian | “They’re definitely Roman-inspired,” says award-winning Canadian designer Gillian Gallow...

    Posted in Hadrian


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